Saturday, January 29, 2011

TMNT & Other Strangeness: An Overview of the Palladium RPG Sourcebooks




*Foreword

In past reviews, I’ve mentioned that I never felt the drive to own any of the Palladium sourcebooks for their 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles roleplaying game. It’s not so much that I held any distaste for them, just simply that I’ve never been into RPGs and so I figured it was just one scrap of TMNT merchandise among veritable tons that I wouldn’t be inclined to pursue.

However, what I found out later was that Palladium’s “TMNT & Other Strangeness”, as well as its many supplements, offer a look into a brief period of time in Turtle history, 1984 through 1987, that I’ve become particularly fascinated with in recent years. The Palladium RPG was introduced in 1985, two years before the TMNT would be picked up by Playmates Toys and Fred Wolf Films to be transformed into a children’s marketing war machine and global phenomenon. The Turtles were still in their infancy at this point and were still little more than just another independent black and white comic book. Licensed Turtle merchandise at this time was scarce and interest in the property was strictly niche. Only dedicated fanboys who hung around in comic shops read the book (as it was a direct market title, not a newsstand publication), and tapping into a similar demographic, the Palladium RPG was only going to entice the most acne-ridden of basement-dwelling Dungeon Masters.

The content of these sourcebooks, particularly the early ones, paint a very interesting picture of the Turtles as they were just beginning to license themselves out to appeal to wider audiences. We get to see ideas that were spawned in these sourcebooks which would go on to become standards across all Turtles mediums, we get to see early renditions of the characters, their personalities and their histories when they were still incredibly young on a conceptual level (the first sourcebook came out when the Mirage comic was only four issues in!) and, perhaps more fascinating to readers of the TMNT series, we get to see a lot of alternate origins for supporting characters created at a time when they had no origins to speak of! Many of these concepts didn’t stick and were contradicted by later Mirage publications, but seeing what other ideas (often radically different from the finished product) that the guys were throwing around can be especially enthralling.

All this and each volume is punctuated with page after page of artwork provided by Mirage’s stable of artists, most prominently Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Ryan Brown and Jim Lawson, as well as Palladium’s own staff of talent.

So let’s take a brief once-over from the top of this small but enlightening look at the Turtles before they “hit it big”.


*TMNT & Other Strangeness (1985)


Before I get started, I should say that these sourcebooks were primarily written and conceptualized by the late Erik Wujcik, co-founder of Palladium Books. Wujcik was a very talented and creative man, who tragically fell victim to cancer in 2008. Though I never roleplayed, I still found a great deal of entertainment simply from reading these volumes, and the care and craftsmanship that went into them is obvious even to the uninitiated like myself.

“TMNT & Other Strangeness” is the base from which all the other supplements spring out from and having been released in 1985, only a year after the TMNT were first introduced, it takes a great deal of creative license in fleshing out the characters, their universe and crafting numerous new elements to make their world more interesting for the gaming public. This first volume only features familiar characters and settings up through TMNT (Vol. 1) #4, giving some idea of what little material Wujcik had to work with.



A staple of these volumes which I’m afraid I’m not going to go on about in detail, as I’m simply too RPG-illiterate to appreciate them, are pages upon pages upon pages of charts, graphs and tables detailing the skill levels, powers, weapons, environments, vehicles, politics, technology and every other nuance needed to run a scenario within the confines of this fictional universe. As these games deal heavily with mutants, every volume has sections dedicated to specific animals, detailing their physical stats and inherent abilities. These features are more appealing to gamers than myself, I’m sure, as I’m primarily in this for the story summaries, character profiles and artwork.

“TMNT & Other Strangeness” offers outlines for several adventures to get players started, each with their own selection of unique characters and creations. The second is my favorite of the bunch, “The Terror Bears”, which sees the titular mutant bear cubs (Pain Bear, Fear Bear, Doom Bear and Nightmare Bear) causing nocturnal havoc in suburban neighborhoods while trying not to be recaptured by the laboratory they escaped from. There’s also a scenario with the villainous Doc Feral, who’d prove to be a recurring enemy throughout these volumes, as well as several other adventures that I won’t list for the sake of brevity.

The Terror Bears are freakin’ creepy, by the way.



The character profiles for the established Mirage TMNT cast offer several insights from a time when, in the TMNT comic-itself, not all the Turtles had yet to display individual identities. Raph’s profile, for example, informs us that his best friend among his brothers is Michelangelo, an idea that was prominent in early issues of the Mirage series which eventually fell by the wayside in favor of the pair following a much more antagonistic relationship. Michelangelo’s profile includes this curious and discomforting sentence: “In many ways he is the hedonist and the sensualist, appreciative of the pleasures of the flesh”.

Moving on.

In addition to the Turtles and Splinter, April, Baxter and Casey Jones are also given fleshed-out biographies, though aside from perhaps their ages and physical characteristics, nothing is really offered that can’t be found in the comics-themselves. The profile on the Shredder and the Foot offers some rather interesting tidbits, though. The description of the Foot references the unseen organizational structure; they’re ruled by the Council of Eight with “The Faceless One” being the head of the entire global syndicate. I presume the concept was taken from this lone panel in TMNT (Vol. 1) #1, though only seven council members are shown (presumably the missing eighth man is the mysterious “Faceless One”):



Doing a little research, I learned that the first printing of “TMNT & Other Strangeness” contained a section describing the various mental insanities you could apply to your character, ranging anywhere from kleptomania to extreme sexual deviancy. Parents naturally objected to a sourcebook encouraging their kids to roleplay as rapists and future printings omitted this section, which was about three pages long.

The section was hilariously thorough, even going so far as to include tables for Affective Disorders, Psychosis, Neurosis and Phobias. Or, if you'd suffered some generic "trauma", you could take a roll from the "Random Insanity Table"! There were also sections devoted to drug addiction and withdrawl symptoms, which you had to roll for to see how well you were recovering (assuming you even wanted to recover). While I already mentioned that I didn't care much for the charts and graphs and tables sections of the volume, I found this to be comedy gold. Don't want to take my word for it? See for yourself. It is three jam-packed pages of nothing but this:



“TMNT & Other Strangeness” also features an original short comic, “Don’t Judge a Book...”, and interior artwork by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, consisting of both original material and art recycled from the Mirage comic. I dig much of the profile art, particularly for the established characters. And this is easily my favorite piece of Utrom art ever:



Look at that smug little bastard, sipping his space juice or whatever the hell that is.


*After the Bomb (1986, with supplements in 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1994)



Now I’m going to take a moment to talk about “After the Bomb” and its multitude of supplements. “After the Bomb” was something of an alternate route that players could take, veering away from the world of the Ninja Turtles and pitting them in a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by radiation-born mutant animals and monsters.

Though it was born as a supplement to “TMNT & Other Strangeness” and focuses almost exclusively on mutant animals of every shape and size, you’ll find very little actual TMNT content within the pages of “After the Bomb” and its sequels. This made reading through the volumes less interesting for me, but I figured I’d list them anyway, as they each still bear the subtitle “A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle supplement”.

“After the Bomb” spawned five of its own supplements: “Road Hogs”, "Mutants Down Under”, “Mutants of the Yucatan”, “Mutants in Avalon” and “Mutants in Orbit”. Of the entire six volume series, only “Road Hogs” boasted any directly TMNT-related content: a short comic aptly titled “Road Hogs”, featuring an elderly Raphael training a new generation of Mutant Turtles.



Though the Ninja Turtles were almost completely absent, the volumes rotated between Palladium’s staff and Mirage artists providing pictures for the books. Peter Laird did artwork for the first volume, while Kevin Eastman would provide cover paintings for future volumes as well. Jim Lawson, Mirage’s number one “go-to guy”, did all the art for volumes like “Mutants Down Under”.



Each successive volume focused on different locations in the post-nuclear Armageddon setting, with each geographic location yielding its own unique set of mutant animals. The concept wears thin as early as “Mutants Down Under”, but the artwork is still a treat. When Palladium ceased producing TMNT RPG sourcebooks, they eventually edited the “After the Bomb” series to remove any scant references to the Turtles so that they could still publish the volumes.


*TMNT Adventures! (1986)



Getting back on track with the actual Turtles, though, Wujcik next brought out a more proper sequel in “TMNT Adventures!” in 1986 (still a year before the Fred Wolf cartoon!)

With all the stats, graphs, vehicles and technology specifications listed out in excruciating detail in “TMNT & Other Strangeness”, “TMNT Adventures!” was given the benefit of focusing exclusively on new adventure scenarios, some following the original characters created in the first volume and some following brand new challenges.

The volume opens with a scenario focusing on those creepy little Terror Bears wreaking havoc in a US nuclear missile silo. Cleverly, the adventure describes itself as a means to segue your game into the “After the Bomb” supplement by suggesting to the “Game Master” that he make the challenge unwinnable, thus resulting in the nuclear destruction of the planet and a means to move onto a new supplement. Very clever indeed.



Not all the included adventures feature very enthralling villains or challenges. While Doc Feral returns for another round, there are some very dull threats like a cyborg named “Mr. Bionic” or a heavy metal band called “The 666”. However, even the most boring of adventure summaries are made at least a little interesting by divvying up the background material between “Media Reports”, “Inside Information” and “Game Master Information”, sort of requiring you to piece the elements together on your own.



“TMNT Adventures!” came with an original comic, “New York Ninja”, as well as entirely original interior art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The comics included in both this volume and “TMNT & Other Strangeness” sort of confuse me, as they don’t really have anything to do with the material covered in the books or even seem to set up any potential roleplaying scenarios. They’re just typical comics that could have been published anywhere else.


*TMNT’s Guide to the Universe (1987)



Having been written following the TMNT’s outer space adventure arc in the Mirage comic, “TMNT’s Guide to the Universe” focuses primarily on the extraterrestrial elements introduced in that storyline.

We get a map of the galaxy the Turtles were teleported to, as well as historical info on a number of the alien races seen populating the backgrounds of those issues. Since this installment takes us out of the comfort zone of Earth, Wujcik creates a brand new set of vehicle, technology and creature stats to take up the first fifteen pages of the book.

Interestingly, “TMNT’s Guide to the Universe” appears to be the very first piece of TMNT media to designate the T.C.R.I. aliens with the name “Utroms”. This name would stick, being used in both later issues of the Mirage comic and in the 4Kids cartoon series. There’s also a lot of background describing the politics behind the aggressions between the Triceraton Republic and the Human Federation; the two warring factions featured prominently during the outer space arc of TMNT (Vol. 1). Lots of alien races, such as the Ka’Trib and the Spiney are fabricated for this volume, while others such as the D’Ants are lifted from background characters, and even still others, such as the Varlesh (the crab people from Fugitoid #1) are given identities for the very first time.



The adventure section offers the third appearance of Doc Feral as well as several other challenges both out of this world and inexplicably terrestrial.

“TMNT’s Guide to the Universe” also offered an original comic, “Terror by Transmat!” (my favorite of all the comics published in these sourcebooks), and loads of new art by Eastman, Laird and Ryan Brown.


*Transdimensional TMNT (1989)



Coming two years after the premier of the Fred Wolf cartoon series, it was surprising to find that this volume had yet to feel any effects from the now-kid-friendlier franchise.

“Transdimensional TMNT” is the thickest volume since the original “TMNT & Other Strangeness” and offers quite a wealth of fresh content. It was billed as a sourcebook compatible with “Heroes Unlimited”, “Beyond the Supernatural”, “Robotech”, “Ninjas and Superspies” and “TMNT & Other Strangeness”, so I guess it just had more mouths to feed.

This volume sees the TMNT facing down temporal anomalies across space and time, with the Time Scepter or Lord Simultaneous and Renet (from TMNT (Vol. 1) #8 and Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #7) being the catalyst for all this madness. As a result, interior artist Jim Lawson gets to draw the two things he loves best: mutants and dinosaurs! Like the original “TMNT & Other Strangeness”, the majority of this volume covers stats and technological characteristics from multiple time periods, which isn’t exactly my cup of tea.



On the bright side, “Transdimensional TMNT” boasts the most fascinating character profiles of any of the volumes, as it covers several supporting Mirage characters who at the time were so new they didn’t yet have any background histories in any of the comics. The histories and identities presented in this volume are almost all completely contradictory to what would later be revealed in the Mirage comic, but are none the less fascinating for the glimpses they give us at alternate takes on the familiar characters and the directions they just might have gone in. Meanwhile, other characters have still yet to receive detailed backgrounds in the Mirage comics, making their histories here the only ones ever provided.

Lord Simultaneous (real name Marcus Sandelheim) is described as not an all-powerful god, but simply just another Joe filling in a job and living a standard human lifespan (it is stated that by the time of TMNT #8, he’d only been a Time Lord for 16 years). Simultaneous originated from the Middle Ages, before being selected to study as a Time Lord. Lord Simultaneous is only one of several Time Lords who form the Council of the 79th Level. Meanwhile, Renet (real name Renet Tilley) was a spoiled brat from the 79th Level whose parents forced her into Time Lord apprenticeship so she could learn discipline. Lord Savanti Romero, unfortunately, is given no historical information, other than a ridiculously long real name (Savanti Alfonso Juanito Geriero Santiago Romero).

None of the above characters ever got any background info in the comics, making this the only histories we’ve ever received for them. Considering how contradictory the other background profiles for established characters are in this book, you may want to view them with a grain of salt, but I’m happy with having “something” over “nothing”.



Complete Carnage and Radical have easily the most bonkers origins of any of the characters, in every way incongruous with their origins as later seen in the Mirage comic. Here, both Complete Carnage and Radical were extraterrestrial entities from 612,468,914 years ago, each chosen by their races to do battle. Their essences were sent hurtling through space by a supernova where they came to Earth and possessed a pair of humans: Max Wilsocci, a down-on-his-luck wannabe pro athlete, and Hazel McIntyre, a spoiled-rotten rich girl with no positive personality qualities whatsoever.

It’s amusing to see how radically (ha ha) different both their origins and their personalities are, as Complete Carnage, the villain, is presented in a more likable light than Radical, the heroine.

Last but not least, we learn about the continuing adventures of Kirby King after he was trapped in his “Kirby World” at the end of Donatello (microseries) #1 (he was hailed by his people as a great sorcerer hero and taught their various martial arts and crafts) and we get some sparse background on the Rat King, who here is known only as “Monster”. Since the name “Rat King” is not used here, I’m left with the impression that that moniker was created by Ryan Brown for the Playmates toyline and the Fred Wolf cartoon series, where it proceeded to stick as his identity. Here, “Monster” is given little background, only that he’s a crazy guy with multiple personality syndrome who thinks he has command of the rats but actually has no powers whatsoever.

The adventure summaries are a bit thinner than usual, though we get a fourth and final altercation with Doc Feral. For the first time, an adventure is summarized featuring actual TMNT supporting characters rather than original creations, detailing an adventure with Complete Carnage and Radical.

Incidentally, this is one of my favorite volumes in the series, thanks in large part to the very interesting alternate and early takes on the supporting characters of the Mirage comics.


*Truckin’ Turtles (1989)



Okay, see, now HERE is where the absurd, idiotic and childish elements of the Fred Wolf cartoon series and the TMNT’s new status quo as children’s characters began to pollute the Palladium sourcebooks.

Written by Jape Trostle and Kevin Siembieda rather than Wujcik, “Truckin’ Turtles” dials back the alarming, frightening and violent elements from the earlier TMNT sourcebooks to create a much lighter and kid-oriented adventure filled with goofy characters and challenges. The primary plot of this supplement sees the Turtles chasing a misunderstood trucker, Melvin “Bert” McClusky, across the interstates and back roads of America. Along the way, they do battle with Shriner Ninja (you read that right), engage in outrageous food fights at diners and deal with supervillains such as Ener-Tron, the Energy Alien.



Despite guns and the occasional utterance of the word “shit”, “Truckin’ Turtles” represents a notorious downward spike for the Palladium TMNT series. Previous installments dealt with insane storylines before, but this one overloads on the goofy with none of the intense or dark elements that made the earlier sourcebooks so engaging.

While other sourcebook supplements boasted a variety of stories, “Truckin’ Turtles” is a single adventure with the sourcebook holding your hand every step of the way. It tells you what dialogue characters can say and when, how they should act in every situation, how other characters should react to them and, in an ultimate display of “control freak”, even goes so far as to dictate precisely what kinds of restaurants your characters can eat at, the food they can order and even the sorts of names for the waitresses and cooks.

At the end of the day, it basically reads like a very poorly formed multipath adventure rather than anything encouraging players to think for themselves and construct original obstacles and solutions. The terminally bland artwork from Tom Baxa doesn’t even make this thing fun to flip through on a glance.

Disturbingly, it isn’t even the worst of the series…


*Turtles Go Hollywood (1990)



That would be this pile of crap.

In a 2007 interview for “Space Station Liberty”, Palladium co-founder Kevin Siembieda lamented the downward spiral of the TMNT RPG series, which he claims was a direct result of the Fred Wolf cartoon and the brand’s newfound kid-friendly reputation:

“No self-respecting teenager, even if he thought the Turtles were cool, or thought the Ninja Turtle game was cool, was going to be caught dead playing it.”

Well, maybe you shouldn’t have written that stupid “Truckin’ Turtles” volume, Kevin?

Anyway, “Turtles Go Hollywood”, written by Daniel Greenberg, goes the extra mile of not only being mindless and terrible, but actually tries to pass itself off as a thinly-disguised public service announcement against illegal drugs.



The story sees the Turtles traveling to Hollywood where they do battle with corrupt producers, ridiculous mutant animals, robots and a badly watered-down version of the Shredder and the Foot. The Turtles bust the drug running operation of the evil Labb Ratt (a mutant rat in a zoot suit), whilst engaging in various hilarious hijinks all the while. I said “thinly-disguised” earlier, but the anti-drug message isn’t really "disguised" at all. The book even opens with the message, “Drugs are not a means to adventure. Drugs are not cool. And despite how things may appear, everybody is not using drugs!” You know, just in case kids walked away from this 48-page public service announcement with the wrong idea.

The interior art from Kevin Long is a step up from the last guy, as Long is really a very good artist, but he simply isn’t given much of anything good to draw.

"Turtles Go hollywood" was the final nail in the coffin for Palladium’s TMNT RPG and, after a decade of not producing any new material, Palladium passed on renewing the license in 2001.


*Afterword

Despite that rather sour note to end on, the Palladium RPG series was a very fun ride for me to take. As a pretty dedicated Turtle fan, I’m not often confronted with fresh material to dig into. These sourcebooks proved a completely new and fascinating experience for me, especially as someone with a greater interest in the TMNT comics.

Though I can’t say I got the full intended experience from these volumes, as I don’t game, I got a real kick out of them, regardless. Their quality as gaming material I cannot comment on, so for all I know, they could actually have been terrible for their intended purpose. I’ll let you wistful RPGers of the 80s educate me on that. But if you’re a fan of the Mirage series and the history of the Turtles, particularly that brief span of time before the Fred Wolf cartoon came along and placed the “kid’s stuff” banner on the franchise, you’d be doing yourself a favor by looking into the early volumes of this series. The art from the familiar faces is some of their very best (and most seldom seen), while the background info on characters, whether it stuck in the comics or not, illustrates a fascinating offshoot in the series’ creative process.

While I don’t care much for gaming, I’m happy I took the time to buy these (and, believe it or not, they go for ridiculously low prices on the aftermarket).


*Addendum (November, 2011)



Turtle Fan Adam Winters recently contacted me with information from issue #9 of The Rifter (published 2000), Palladium's fanzine/newsletter publication that circulated in the late 90s. The issue features an article by Siembieda explaining why Palladium would be letting the TMNT license go, cancelling their plans for a second edition of "TMNT & Other Strangeness" featuring characters and concepts from the "Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation" live-action TV series.

The cover of the issue was done by none other than Simon Bisley (who is no stranger to the Turtles). It was originally commissioned for the second edition of "TMNT & Other Strangeness" but went unused (obviously). The select black and white artwork featured in the issue was done by Paulo Parentes Studio in Italy, originally commissioned in 1997 by Palladium.



In his editorial, Siembieda goes into detail explaining how the mass market appeal of the TMNT franchise, particularly geared exclusively toward children, effectively murdered the "TMNT & Other Strangeness" RPG. After referring to TMNT as "The Pokemon of its day", Siembieda continues, "On the other hand, the successful 'mass marketing' killed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the comic book and role-playing game markets where they first took off... The once gritty, satirical, hard-hitting Turtles became cuddly, fun-loving, pizza-swirling heroes to little kids - ages 3-10 - and joined the ranks of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Smurfs! ...It didn't matter that the role-playing game (and the b/w comic book) was the same gritty, butt-kicking, imaginative and fun game it had always been. The Turtles were taboo to the teen market".



He then gets into numbers, explaining that the RPG, which once moved 4000+ units a month, suddenly had sales plummet "overnight" to less than 1,200 units. And shortly after that, it went to maybe 100 units a month. Even sadder, he describes Palladium's 3-year, $20,000 promotional blitz for the second edition of "TMNT & Other Strangeness" via high profile outlets such as Marvel Comics publications, their own The Rifter newsletter and even at conventions. And after 3 years of promoting, they had only received 30 advanced mail orders; a pitiful number. Retailers outright refused the book or only offered to pay for "test" samples.

Mirage offered to renew Palladium's license for another 2 years, but Siembieda declinded, as both companies had been keeping the RPG afloat for a financial loss for years and there was simply no more sense to keep throwing money at the thing. He then proceeds to thank everyone at Mirage for all their help and cooperation for the last fifteen years and, after bidding the TMNT a fond farewell, encourages readers to check Page 9 for a major TMNT RPG liquidation sale.



I really appreciate Adam sharing this information with me, as it shines some much needed light and context on the whimpering death of one of the last remaining (and longest running) "young adult" pieces of TMNT media at a time when the children's mediums were redefining the entire franchise. If my selected quotes make it appear that way, I just want to assure you that Siembieda's editorial was not bitter in any way, but highly respectful of the people who helped "TMNT & Other Strangeness" flourish for over a decade and genuinely melancholly to finally see it go.


3 comments:

The S said...

Fun fact: Several of the characters from these books (Usub Gerstalk and Labb Ratt come to mind) showed up in PC game "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Manhattan Missions".

E. Wilson said...

Oh my God, "Guide to the Universe" takes me back to some vague time in my childhood that had to have fallen between 1990 and 1993 when I was in a second-hand bookstore with my dad. I saw that book, and asked for it, and he said something along the lines of, I didn't really want it, because it wasn't a comic book like I thought it was. (And in retrospect, he'd probably realized it was a gamebook, and was probably right about me not really wanting it.)

And I'd completely forgotten about that until I saw the rather unique cover art of astro-turtles fixing a space car. Life's funny that way.

Adam Winters said...

When you mentinoed Lawson's two favorite things to draw, I thought you were going to say "motorcycles and dinosaurs." I'm guessing you haven't read any of his Bade Biker series? His fascinating with bikes is almost obsessive in the editorials, confessing that his primary reason for doing the comic is to earn enough to buy a bike... which will then give him more reference material for improving the comic!

Seriously though, this is one of your best articles yet.